December 28, 2005--The city of Sanger is entitled to immunity from a civil lawsuit filed by the widow of a Fresno County sheriff's deputy who was killed by a suspected car thief being chased by a Sanger police officer, a Fresno judge ruled.
The lawsuit was filed by Heather Lancaster, widow of Joshua Lancaster, who died on May 28, 2003, when Agustin Zapata slammed into Joshua Lancaster's unmarked patrol car. Sanger police officer Eric Grijalvas was chasing Zapata when the collision occurred.
Sanger police did not notify the Sheriff's Department about the police pursuit so Lancaster, a burglary detective patrolling the Sanger area, was unaware of it.
Zapata was convicted Dec. 19 of three counts of second-degree murder for the deaths of Lancaster and Zapata's pregnant girlfriend.
Judge Mark W. Snauffer granted the summary judgment to Sanger on Thursday.
Attorneys for Heather Lancaster had argued that Sanger's procedure for coordinating operations with other police agencies during pursuits did not meet minimum state standards and that the city's radio communication policy was "virtually nonexistent."
The attorneys, Rick Berman and Wilda White, also questioned whether the Sanger department's vehicle pursuit police policy was ever properly adopted and contended that the department's radio system was "unique" because it could not access an emergency channel that the Sheriff's Department uses.
The attorneys contended there was evidence that Sanger Police Chief Tom Klose never read the city's pursuit policy.
In his ruling, Snauffer noted that the pursuit policy was adopted in December 2001, before Klose became chief, and it was in force at the time of the collision, "regardless of whether Klose personally read or understood it."
Snauffer also dismissed arguments that the pursuit policy was insufficient because it left "certain decisions" to either the pursuing officer or a supervisor and that it failed to require that other police agencies be notified "as soon as possible" if a chase extended beyond Sanger's jurisdiction.
The judge saw little difference between the number of pursuit vehicles specified in the Sanger policy and the number specified by Selma city policy, which he said plaintiffs pointed to as a "model of statutory compliance."
While Sanger's policy requires other agencies to be notified if a chase leaves the city limits, the city argued that Sanger did not have the money to equip its police vehicles with radios that allowed them to use a countywide frequency. A dispatcher had to use a telephone to contact other agencies.
The judge said if there was a weakness in the city's policy that showed Sanger failed to meet state standards, it was in the area of coordination with neighboring jurisdictions.
But Snauffer said whether the city's officers operated at the levels spelled out in the pursuit policy did not matter if the policy itself was legally adequate.
"... The Sanger policy, while perhaps not ideal ... satisfies the basic requirements" of state law, Snauffer ruled.
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